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Media headlines of late are challenging our presumptions about what is invisible labor.

Amazon, for instance, announced the opening of a store that eliminates the frontline job of cashiers – as well as the checkout lane and all the self-checkout machines. Instead, this work will be done through the automatic scanning of consumer movements around the store and on the shelves. Live employment will be diverted to locations behind the scenes, in labors of preparing and stocking the food.

Likewise, in my home state of Missouri, a waitress at Hooters was fired for failing to do the work of looking right on the job. That labor involved wearing a wig (bought at her own expense) to cover scar on her head after returning from brain surgery, and thus upholding gendered and sexualized appearance rules at work.

Even acts of resistance on the job are telling, like when an African-American employee broke a stained-glass window in the Yale dining hall where he washed dishes. Outraged by a scene depicting slaves picking cotton, he was no longer willing to do the work of idly supporting in a discriminatory organizational environment.

Automation, aesthetic labor, and racial tasks are examples of contemporary ways that the workplace is disempowering workers and submerging the types of tasks they are expected to do. This is the starting point of a new book I co-edited with two legal scholars, Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry.

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dollarIn early June, it came to light that last October, Walt Disney World Orlando eliminated the jobs of 250 data systems employees. The move made national news not because so many workers became jobless, but because Disney offered a severance bonus to employees who remained with the firm long enough to train the young immigrant workers who would assume their tasks.

The heartlessness of this move left workers and consumers reeling. A former Disney employee told a reporter for the New York Times, “It was so humiliating to train someone else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.” Outrage spread across news and social media, fueled by dismay that a company so closely associated with wholesome family entertainment would betray its workers in this way.

Many observers lamented loopholes in the H-1B visa program used to secure the replacement workers’ entry to the US, and endorsed reforms that would reduce impacts on American workers. Relatively few seem to grasp that Disney’s moves are rooted not in policy loopholes or corporate malfeasance, but instead are part and parcel of capitalism. Outsourcing, layoffs and swiftly severed ties – this is what capitalism looks like. As Karl Marx pointed out in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, workers, who under capitalism “must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The “increasing improvement” of production methods “ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Manual workers confronted this reality decades ago, as plants in the United States closed and production moved overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. Increasingly, professional workers are also feeling the pain of displacement. And there is only more to come.

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In the lede article in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that a critical topic has been glaringly absent from the presidential debate: the standard of living of Americans.

Hats off to Leonhardt and the Times for bringing this issue to the front page. Unfortunately, as is typical of the Times and other media outlets, the article was based exclusive on interviews with mainstream economists.

A particularly sharp juxtaposition between economic and sociological analyses of living standards and inequality was posed today with the publication of a symposium of sociologists in the journal Work and Occupations on Arne Kalleberg’s recent book, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.

Based on his interviews with economists, Leonhard lists the top two causes of “a decade of income stagnation” as automation and globalization. No one to blame here, just impersonal forces we can’t control!

Among a “second group” of forces, he notes rising health care costs and “shrinking” unions.

In contrast, neither Kalleberg nor any of his commenters highlight technology as playing an independent role in wage stagnation and growing inequality, unmediated by the decisions of managers and policymakers. Instead, Kalleberg focuses on the rise of low-wage work, driven by a shifting balance of power between employers and workers as employers, aided by policymakers, engaged in corporate restructuring to achieve flexibility.

Globalization is a key force here, indeed. But rather than viewing it as an impersonal force to which corporations respond, sociologists emphasize how globalization is actively created by American corporations through global outsourcing.

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Apple Inc. is the largest technology company in the world, in terms of both revenue and profit. Yet, the California-based company has just 47,000 workers on its payroll in the United States. Apple recently released a report in which it claimed responsibility for “indirectly” creating an additional 257,000 American jobs in industries that are part of its supply chain, a claim that was “disreputable,” in the words of MIT labor economist David Autor – as if Apple’s suppliers did not have any other customers. Or, as Wharton labor economist Peter Cappelli noted, as if the consumers spending their money on an iPad would not have purchased another product in its absence (see a New York Times article on debates over the report here, including comments from Autor and Cappelli).

While Apple’s claim to have created jobs for UPS and FedEx employees is questionable, however, there is some truth to the argument that Apple is responsible for the employment – and working conditions – at its key suppliers, particularly manufacturers for which Apple is the main customer. This may be the case for some Corning employees in the US (supplying glass for iPhones) and is very likely the case for, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of employees at Foxconn in China, which presumably has entire lines or buildings dedicated to Apple.

A recent report by political economist and accountant Karel Williams and his research team at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester looked at the Apple Business Model and its employment effects. They cite a study which found that Chinese workers add $6.50 in value to each iPhone 3, just 3.6% of the phone’s shipping price.

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